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Why great leaders are Relational

Collaboration And Connection Smaller


By Daniel Kingsley


A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.

Lao Tzu


I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.

Ralph Nader


A great person attracts great people and knows how to hold them together.

Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe


I’m spending increasing amounts of my time coaching leaders, and one thing I’m discovering to be true is that the best leaders are primarily Relational.  They recognise that an organisation is only as strong as its people and how they relate to each other.  And that if you get the relationships right everything else falls into place.

For over a decade I’ve been coaching people in communication skills using an amazingly powerful technology called Relational Presence ®.  It allows speakers to feel truly confident in front of audiences and to build powerful connections.  But even more importantly for leaders it allows them to listen in a way that people really feel heard, and so that they as leaders really are hearing.

In successful modern organisations we are all leaders now.  The best organisations don’t function with the leader on high giving orders, but with everyone throughout the organisation exercising leadership qualities and capabilities.

My colleagues and I in the Relational Presence Network have been seeking to codify what we have learned through coaching about how the best leaders lead relationally.  We’ve been asking – What is Relational Leadership?


What is Relational Leadership?

We’re developing a detailed programme of teaching to help leaders and would-be leaders to deepen their skills in leading in this highly connected and very effective way.  In this blog post I thought I’d share with you what we have learned so far along the way.

Relational Leadership is human, connected, listening, spacious and collaborative.

We have distilled Relational Leadership down to 3 core principles, and by understanding them we believe you will already be closer to knowing what really matters for the best leaders today.  They are:

  1. Being in Relational Presence
  2. Creating an environment where people feel safe so they are able to connect and speak truthfully.
  3. Taking Radical Responsibility

If you can do these 3 things as a leader, in our experience your organisation will thrive and find it easy to attract and retain the best people.  And those people will be able to exercise their leadership capabilities and do their best work.

So, if you’re interested to know more let’s break those headings down.


Being in Relational Presence

Relational Presence is a powerful way of being.  It fosters real confidence and authentic connection in everyone present.  It consists in essence of being present in the moment and valuing connection over the content of what is being said.  It is not that the content is unimportant.  The content is incredibly important.  Essential.  Yet, the connection, and the quality of the connection is even more important.

We run extensive courses teaching Relational Presence, but it can be broken down into a number of discrete skills:

  • Seeing the other and letting yourself be seen
  • Deep listening
  • Valuing connection over content
  • Learning through curiosity / willingness to stand in not-knowing
  • Feeling emotions and being embodied.
  • Disidentifying and letting go of judgment / dropping your argument with reality
  • Know whether you are above or below the line of Presence

I could probably write a good size book about the above 7 skills, but I’ll do my best to unpack them each very briefly.

Seeing and being seen ­–  Can we really see the other person as they really are without the filters of our judgments and without worrying what they are thinking about us?  Can we let them see the truth of who we are, without hiding our vulnerability or trying to cover it up.

Deep listening – Can we listen to hear and understand instead of listening in order to react or respond?

Valuing connection over content –  Can we give more value to our relationships than our egos and our personal agendas or even our collective agendas or goals?

Learning through curiosity – Can we be willing to treat everything that happens (especially the things that are not going as we had planned) as an opportunity to learn and grow, personally and together?  Can we be willing to stand in not-knowing and say “I don’t quite know what’s going on here, I don’t know how this is going to work out, and yet I’m willing to explore and discover”.

Feeling emotions and being embodied – Instead of running away from difficult feelings can we actually turn around and be willing to feel them?   Can we “drop out of our heads” and live inside the felt sense of being in our bodies?  There is a huge amount of confidence and intelligence that comes from feeling our bodies from the inside and living from there.  And our minds actually function better when they are in service to our hearts, rather than always thinking they need to be in charge.

Disidentifying and letting go of judgement / Dropping your argument with reality ­–  It’s normal and human to have opinions, biases and judgments.  The best leaders are able to recognise these and are willing to put them to one side and open their minds.  And instead of saying of something they don’t like – “this shouldn’t be happening!” (an argument with reality) they say – I don’t like that this is happening, but I’m willing to accept it, befriend it and engage with it.  Why?  Because as Byron Katie says – “When I argue with reality, I lose – but only 100 percent of the time.”

Knowing whether you are above or below the line of Presence – The ability to exercise and these 6 skills is highly important – they will put you in a state of Relational Presence.  But as important is the skill of knowing when you are embodying these qualities and when you are not ­– whether you are “above the line” of Presence or below it.  Using the technique of Awareness, Acceptance and Choice (AAC).  E.g. :

Awareness – I’m below the line of Presence right now because I’m wanting to be right and I’ve lost connection.

Acceptance – that’s OK and understandable.

Choice – I’m going to let go of my need to be right and find a way to shift to a place of curiosity and deep listening, to myself, to the other and to the wider world.


Creating an Environment where people feel safe…

…so they are able to connect and speak truthfully.

If people don’t feel safe they won’t be willing to connect with each other or open up to each other.  If they do feel safe they will be able to support each other and share the difficult truths that an organisation needs in order to be truly healthy.

We can break this down into these skills:

  • Including all voices
  • Speaking openly and honestly with all opinions owned
  • Recognising perspectives – we see the world not how it is but how we are
  • Practising integrity
  • Actively valuing others – Essence appreciation and appreciative enquiry

Once again there’s a lot I could say about each of these but I’ll just unpack these a little.

Including all voices – This is as simple as it sounds.  Making sure that all relevant voices are in the room and have (where this is practical) equal time to speak.  Making sure that the environment is such that people feel confident to share their perspective.  Very often the person with the quietest voice in the room has the missing piece of the jigsaw.

Speaking openly and honestly with all opinions owned –  To speak openly and honestly is to speak what is true for you without holding anything back.  It is speaking directly to the person concerned rather than gossiping or complaining behind their back.  To own your opinion is to say “I think that this is the way we should do things” rather than “This is the way we should do things”.  And to make room for the real possibility that you’re wrong!

Recognising Perspectives – We see the world not how it is, but how we are.  Everything we see, we see through the filter of our history.  The person who is disagreeing with your ideas in a business meeting might remind you of your mother or father, or of a disparaging teacher.  Additionally many of us carry unprocessed emotion from pre-verbal times in early childhood, which can colour how we experience the world.   When we add to this difficult experiences from our teenage years or other times in our lives, we all have “baggage” which affects our perception and responses.  Add to this the biases we all grow up with and there’s a whole lot of “distorted” seeing going on a lot of the time.

There’s nothing wrong with this.  It’s how we all are and we all function (to a greater or lesser extent).  The important thing here is to recognise (a) that this may colour our perspective, and (b) when our perspective is being affected in this way, and to see if it’s possible to put those memories or biases to one side in order to see things how they actually are right now.  That person who is giving you a hard time in the office isn’t the bully from your childhood, and you are no longer a child, even though to part of you it may feel that way.

Practising Integrity – Are we doing what we believe is right, or are we trying to take short-cuts or to manipulate because we are scared to do what we know to be correct?  Do we keep our promises?  Are we telling the whole truth or only part of the truth?  And when we are not fully in integrity with ourselves can we confront ourselves with kindness, and take the brave and difficult step of coming back into integrity, and apologising to those around us for our lapses in integrity where necessary?  A healthy organisation is one where everyone is acting with full integrity most of the time and is able to admit and repair their lapses of integrity when they are not.  And one where such lapses can be forgiven (thereby encouraging everyone to be candid about their mistakes).

Actively Valuing Others –  “I can see you made a huge effort with that project, and it really paid off”.  “I really appreciate you going the extra mile with your presentation there”.  “Thank you everyone for being on time to the meeting”.  “Kate, I love your attention to detail!  It makes such a difference”. “I really appreciated you saying that yesterday in the meeting – I hadn’t considered that perspective, and it really changed my mind”.

These are things that are too often left unsaid in many organisations.  In most organisations many people fail to take the time to show their appreciation to their colleagues.  To say (a) thank you and (b) to give details as to what in particular they appreciate about the person or the contribution they have made.  Not only is giving appreciation free, it makes all the difference to how valued people feel within an organisation, which is a major factor in job satisfaction and staff retention.   To put it another way – would you wish to be part of an organisation where you felt undervalued?


Taking Radical Responsibility

We now come to the final principle of Relational Leadership. And it’s one where we find most leaders falling short at least some of the time.  The mark of a healthy organisation is one where everyone is willing to take responsibility for their part in something that has gone “wrong” rather than looking to blame the others.  This is not to say that the others don’t have some responsibility in what happened, but that’s out of your control.  The question I have control over is – what’s my part in this.


In any given situation you are either being a victim of your circumstances, or you are taking responsibility.  If you don’t take responsibility, you are a hostage to your circumstances.  You are blaming and shaming others.  You want your life to be different by wanting others to be different.

In taking responsibility, instead you ask – what’s my part in this situation?  What’s going on with me/in me that’s making me act this way?  What can I do to make this “better”?

To embrace our fears, expectations, history, prejudice, own them, be with them and then rise above them and act from a more centred and connected place.

To take responsibility is not the same as blaming yourself.  This is a position where you are not blaming the other and you are not blaming yourself.  You are simply asking – what’s my role here and how can I contribute to a better outcome?

In taking radical responsibility we:

  • Let go of believing that there is a particular way that things should be, and just start to notice how things actually are.
  • Shift from rigidity and closed mindedness and self-righteousness to a state of curiosity, learning and wonder.

“All drama in leadership is caused by a need to be right.  Letting go of that need is a radical shift that all great leaders make” [1].

When we take responsibility, we locate the cause and control of our lives within ourselves.

This is a journey within yourself to confront ourselves and model what we wish for the world and those we work with.  We are connecting to our patterns and history – Acting from integrity and connection instead of conditioning and history.  It’s not easy but it makes a massive difference to how safe and secure people feel within an organisation, and how truly sustainable and functional that organisation is.


How did we do?

So that’s our run-down of the qualities that my colleagues and I think makes a great relational leader.  We’d be fascinated to hear how this resonates with you.  What stands out for you?  What do you recognise from your own experience?  What don’t you recognise?  Is there anything missing for you?  Let us know in the comments below.

As you can see, there’s a lot to do if we wish to be really effective relational leaders.  Embodying all of this all the time is absolutely impossible!  We will always fall short sometimes.  The trick is to notice with kindness, take the learning from our mistakes and shift to an attitude of continual learning and curiosity.

I’m truly fascinated by this area, and it is one of the great joys of my life right now to share these principles with established and up-and-coming leaders in organisations.  Helping them to lead with integrity, heart, Presence and connection.  And I’m learning from them about leadership all the time.

I’d love to hear your leadership stories, and of course if you’re interested in exploring any of these areas in a one to one coaching capacity, I’d be delighted to work with you, just contact us.


[1] From The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership – Dethmer, Chapman and Warner-Klemp













Daniel Kingsley
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